By Leonie Eland Contributing Writer December 19, 2014

The Ukraine crisis has united the West like no other recent event in the international arena. From Canadian Prime Minister Harper to European Commission President Juncker, the West has closed ranks, as evidenced by the G20 meeting in Brisbane. In Australia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered the latest demonstration of Western alignment in her speech at the Lowy Institute for International Politics and for the first time openly condemned Russia for threatening Europe’s security. Even for analysts familiar with Germany’s standpoint, the toughness of her stance came as a surprise. Germany was a hesitant signatory of the economic sanctions, and has traditionally kept a cooperative attitude toward Russia starting with Cold War-era Chancellor Willy Brandt.

While the Western alliance enjoys its unified stance, newfound anti-Kremlin cohesion makes it increasingly difficult to pursue de-escalation and mutually beneficial solutions with Russia. For negotiations with the Kremlin to be effective, the West needs a leader that is both trusted and respected by Russia. A nuanced understanding of Russian politics makes clear that depriving Russia of this type of partner could lead further radicalization within the Kremlin. By playing a more collaborative role, Germany could use its strategic role to manage the crisis without jeopardizing its allegiance to the EU and the US. Who else if not Germany enjoys the privilege of being both economically and politically integrated with Russia, and therefore being respected as a credible negotiating partner by the Kremlin?

The Harvard Program on Negotiation, a leading framework for conflict management, suggests that trust and understanding of the other party’s interests lie at the heart of successful negotiation.1 Germany’s move to publicly attack Russia in Brisbane clearly eliminated trust, especially as it occurred only hours after the private conversations held between Merkel and Putin. Mikhail Gorbachev saw the German pronouncement as the latest in a series of breaches of trust since the fall of the Berlin Wall. At this year’s 25th commemoration of the event, he warned that “euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of Western leaders.” A recent survey by Foreign Affairs examined this view among experts and academics in the United States. Asked whether the West provoked Vladimir Putin’s aggression by expanding NATO and the EU after the Cold War, about two thirds of the respondents objected. Yet the majority of the respondents expressed their concern that the West took undue advantage of the fall of the Soviet Union by independently pursuing NATO expansion.

In a recent interview, Henry Kissinger tried to diagnose the gulf of understanding. Kissinger offered that Russia conceals strategic weakness with tactical strength, implying that Russia’s actions represent impulsive displays of strength rather than a clear-cut political strategy. Regardless of the nature of Putin’s decision-making, Germany cannot deny its crucial role in solving the conflict as “most important country in Europe,” in Kissinger’s words. Germany has shown leadership and commitment to the European Union as it deals with the repercussions of the global financial crisis. Germany also assumed a leading role in the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization, taking part in a rapid-reaction brigade for Eastern Europe due to come online in 2015. Still, a German public appeal by 60 leading personalities in politics and society warns that an imprudent handling of the crisis should not erase the efforts of 25 years to build up trust. Such pronouncements remind Gorbachev’s 1989 assertion that “the threat of force, mistrust, psychological and ideological struggle should all be things of the past,” a sentiment confirmed by his American partner George H.W. Bush, who committed to “transform the East-West relationship to one of enduring co-operation.”

Despite Germany’s harsh criticism, the Kremlin continues to show interest in maintaining dialogue with Germany after the G20 Brisbane summit. At the summit, Putin responded to Western disdain by highlighting Russia’s relationship with up-and-comers such as Brazil, India, China and South Africa. Yet soon after in Moscow, both he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov received German Foreign Minister Steinmeier in Moscow, who had just completed a visit to Kiev. The special treatment afforded Steinmeier reflects Putin’s interest in the Russian-German relationship, especially considering the recent tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats initiated by Germany. His exclusive interview with German journalist Hubert Seipel in early November reinforced the impression that Russia sees a partner in Germany, with Putin going so far as to that the relationship had never before been as good. While this statement could be interpreted as mere flirting with German public opinion, it is clear that Russia’s relationship with Germany is much better than with other countries. Unlike in the United States, France, or Britain, German-Russian relationships are not only determined by the Cold War legacy, but reach back to Catherine the Great, whose picture reportedly decorates Merkel’s office. Questioned about whether he thought Merkel would be welcomed in a Russian TV interview, Hubert Seipel answered, “Yes, of course.” He was much less sanguine about the reaction to a similar interview with Obama.

Germany must use its central strategic role to build an environment of trust with Russia and create a platform for European negotiation of the conflict. While Germany forcefully hauled the Eurozone out of recession one year ago, it must be careful to avoid similar harshness in managing its more sensitive relationship with Russia. Effectively resolving the conflict—rather than approaching it with an iron fist—will result in greater benefits for all parties involved.

1. Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin, 1991)

Leonie Marie-Theres Eland is a graduate student in International Public Management at Sciences Po Paris. Focusing on Emerging Economies, she is currently completing an exchange semester at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She can be reached at elandl@gwu.edu or leonie.eland@gmx.de.

Photo by Vladimir Rodionov, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0. Image cropped.